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Matt Rhule Should Go Back to School

Fired by Carolina, Rhule is the latest in a long line of college coaches who failed out of the NFL. But he shouldn’t worry: History tells us he’ll soon return to college to revive a program and his career.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Matt Rhule never really stopped coaching the Temple Owls. After being hired as head coach of the Carolina Panthers in 2020, Rhule immediately began stockpiling players from his first head coaching job: He signed his Owls quarterback, P.J. Walker; and his top receiver, Robbie Anderson. Rhule entered his first NFL season with five former Temple players on the team—almost 10 percent of the Panthers roster—and didn’t stop adding ex-Owls, signing Haason Reddick last offseason and Matt Ioannidis this season.

To be fair, Rhule’s Temple Owls were much better than most Temple teams, especially in 2015, when they crushed Penn State and hosted College GameDay after a 7-0 start. Then they won the American Athletic Conference championship in 2016, the program’s first league title in over 40 years. Still, it seems unwise to construct an NFL roster full of players from a non-power conference team which lost the Marmot Boca Raton Bowl to Toledo.

Unsurprisingly, Rhule’s Carolemple Panthewls did not thrive. He was fired on Monday after a 1-4 start to the 2022 season. After going 10-23 in his first two seasons, it’s surprising he even got to start a third. In 2019, the year before Rhule took over, the Panthers went 5-11, their worst record in nine seasons under Ron Rivera—but Rhule never outperformed that, going 5-11, 5-12, and 1-4. In Rhule’s final 19 games, his team went 3-16 against the spread set by Las Vegas bookmakers—Vegas’s models simply couldn’t adjust for how aggressively Rhule’s team was underperforming. He looked naive and overmatched, and now the Panthers are paying Rhule $40 million not to coach their team going forward.

And yet, he’s a hot commodity—just not in the pros. “If you’re a college AD and Matt Rhule isn’t at/near the top of your interview list then you’re working off the wrong list,” tweeted Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy. “Any major college program would be foolish not to consider Rhule,” wrote ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg while analyzing the best potential fits for Rhule. Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported that Rhule was offered “big-time college jobs” last offseason, but turned them down in hopes of rebounding with Carolina—but now will have “his choice of coveted college jobs.” Rhule is not just a candidate for programs seeking a new direction: He’s the candidate.

I’ve categorized NFL coaches hired from college teams into two major groups: Scheme Guys and Culture Guys. Rhule was, without a doubt, a Culture Guy. Rhule doesn’t have a reputation as an offensive innovator with cutting-edge strategies—but he earned a reputation for building programs. At Temple, he took a program which had once been kicked out of the Big East for non-competitiveness and put together back-to-back 10-win seasons, the best in the program’s Division I history. He moved on to Baylor in 2017, a program reeling from the fallout of a massive sexual assault scandal. Rhule went 1-11 in his first season, but went to a bowl game the next year and played for the Big 12 championship in Year 3. (A Baylor team primarily recruited by Rhule won the league’s title last year.)

In Carolina, Rhule didn’t just try to build a college roster; he maintained a college attitude. Rhule gave strange quotes like, “It took Jay-Z seven years to become an overnight sensation”—in fact, he claimed to tell his team this “all the time.” It’s a baffling quote which might sound impressive to a 17-year-old interested in growing into a superstar, but maybe not to a team of professionals who need to perform well each and every Sunday. He reportedly meddled with the team’s social media—again, something which makes more sense in college, where coaches take control of the entire operation. It doesn’t matter so much in the NFL, where players don’t make their career decisions based on memes—you can select them with draft picks and sign them to contracts with money.

Even though college football and pro football are more or less the same sport on the field, the structural and cultural differences between them have created a dichotomy between coaches who succeed in college and those who succeed in the pros. The list of NCAA-to-NFL failures is long and keeps growing, most recently with Rhule. (The jury is out on Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, but 11 metaphorical jurors are saying “guilty.”) The list of college-to-pros successes in recent decades is essentially one guy: Jim Harbaugh, who won at the University of San Diego, Stanford, and Michigan, with an NFC championship for the 49ers wedged in between.

It’s not just that the NFL is selecting the wrong men to lead its teams. The college coaches who fail in the pros are simply better suited for the game which raised them. NFL rejects like Rhule can suffer any number of pro embarrassments, and it doesn’t particularly matter. They’re still welcome back in college.

In 1976, the Jets hired a coach with a remarkably similar résumé to Rhule: Lou Holtz. The New York Times described him as “a turnaround coach” because of his success at two historically unsuccessful programs, William & Mary and NC State. But Holtz didn’t seem to grasp that he was no longer working in college. After his first preseason win, he surprised his pros by presenting them with sheet music in the locker room: He’d written them a fight song, called “The New York Jets Go Rolling Along.” Rhule interfered with social media; Holtz wrote songs for his team to sing. Both were college coaches in a pro world.

Holtz wanted his team to sing his stupid little song after every victory—luckily, it wouldn’t come up a lot. Holtz tried to run the same offense he used in college—the twin veer—predicated on quarterback runs, despite the fact that his quarterback was Joe Namath after having surgery on both knees in the 1960s, when players didn’t typically return from this sort of procedure. The Jets went 3-11; Holtz resigned with a game left in the season. He didn’t even last a full season in the NFL, then coached for 30 more years in college, winning a national championship at Notre Dame and getting inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. When asked about his time with the Jets, Holtz was quoted as saying “God did not put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach in the pros.”

There are a lot of men who apparently were not put on earth to coach in the pros. Some were already college legends—like Steve Spurrier, who had won a national championship at Florida, struggled in two NFL seasons under Dan Snyder in Washington. (Who wouldn’t?!) Spurrier went back to college and did fine, becoming South Carolina’s all-time winningest coach. Spurrier coached 26 years in college with just two losing seasons, in 1987 and 2015—and failed to reach .500 in both of his seasons as an NFL coach. Others were still on their way to college legend status: Nick Saban left LSU for the Miami Dolphins and lasted just two seasons. He thoroughly denied that he was going to become Alabama’s head coach while sputtering in Miami—”I’m not going to be the Alabama coach … and I don’t know why people keep asking about it”—but we all know what happened next: Thirteen days later, Saban was signing his new contract in Tuscaloosa. He has gone on to become the college coaching GOAT, winning six national championships (and counting!) with the Tide. Saban lost 17 games in two years with Miami and has lost 25 in 16 years in Alabama.

Saban is one of four former NFL coaches leading one of the 15 undefeated teams left in college football: There’s also Chip Kelly, last seen by NFL fans going 2-14 with the Niners in 2016, now finally turning the corner at UCLA; and Lane Kiffin, who, to be fair, needed a few stops between his youthful screw-ups coaching the Raiders and his current success at Ole Miss. (The fourth is Harbaugh.)

It really doesn’t matter how badly you do in the pros. Bobby Petrino went 3-10 with the Falcons, but was so highly sought-after by college teams that he was able to leave Atlanta overnight, announcing his departure by placing a note in players’ lockers. He went on to win a lot of games at Arkansas, Western Kentucky, and Louisville—although the locker room note would turn out to be his second-most-chaotic exit.

In some cases for a failed coach, your old team might even want you back! Mike Riley and Greg Schiano both had short and ugly NFL careers, but eventually came right back to their last college jobs and went on to become the winningest coaches in Oregon State and Rutgers history, respectively.

And perhaps the one coach who is currently as sought-after as Rhule is also an NFL disaster story: Bill O’Brien, who like Rhule, turned around a program recovering from the fallout of a sexual assault scandal at Penn State. O’Brien demanded the same level of complete control with the Houston Texans that he had enjoyed as a college head coach, but consistently screwed up as an NFL general manager, making lopsided trades and bewildering signings that made him a laughingstock of the league. But a few years as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator, and he’s likely to be a top candidate for college gigs once again.

There is even a college appetite for the worst NFL hire in recent memory: Urban Meyer. Meyer was hired to coach the Jaguars in 2021, in spite of the fact that he had protected a domestic abuser on his staff at Ohio State. It was a disastrous and embarrassing season, ending with Meyer being fired for cause.

But Meyer won three national championships between Florida and Ohio State, and quickly regained his seat on Fox’s college football pregame show. During a recent trip to Nebraska, fans chanted “WE WANT URBAN” in the background of a segment, along with the show’s anchor asking fans whether they’d like Nebraska to hire Meyer:

It’s unclear whether anybody will hire Meyer. But his personal and professional failings should make him untouchable; instead, throngs of college fans are clamoring for him. Once a coach has achieved success in college, there will always be someone who thinks they can be the answer to all of a program’s problems.

After reading all of this, you’re probably thinking that Rhule is a pretty attractive option for the college programs with openings. He has an established track record, he was merely bad instead of awful as an NFL coach, and, notably, he is not Urban Meyer. In the NFL, Rhule’s dedication to rostering his favorite Temple players was a sign of staleness and sentimentality. In a recruit’s living room, it’s a sign that Rhule is loyal and can get players to the NFL. Rhule never adjusted to the pro game, which made him look like a foolish doofus in the NFL—but like so many others before him, it’s exactly why his NFL failure won’t scare any colleges off.